Fascination is created when a poet can vary his style, thought and sound patterns, word choice, and topics from one poem to another. This variation gives the reader a feeling that a persona, not the poet, is the recorder of the ideas expressed in the poetry; such a technique abounds in The Rainbow Grocery by William Dickey, whose writing style changes from the concrete to the abstract most rapidly. His poems, like the colors of a rainbow, are distinct and different—one does not melt into the other. The text, an irregular prism of light through which words are reflected, is divided into three sections: “In the Dreaming,” “The Rainbow Grocery,” and “Face Paintings.”
Poems in the first part, “In the Dreaming,” cover a diverse range of topics including the poet’s mail, teeth, and mouth, a schoolmaster, Mr. Thrale, Virginia Woolf, the loss of a loved one, and the stage. The poet’s visions are layered, and he has a talent for keeping things vague. Sometimes after reading a poem, the reader is drawn back for another perusal; at other times, though, the nonsensical coupling of ideas makes one frustrated as he attempts to undo the puzzle of words pieced together on the page.
The section also contains two humorous pieces, “The Poet’s Farewell to His Teeth” and “Chicken in San Francisco.” In the former, the poet wishes his teeth “every success in [their] chosen field” and reminisces about all the experiences they have shared together. He promises that the false ones will never communicate with him as his own have done and vows that he shall always remember them. Finally, in the last stanza the poet wishes his teeth relaxation “by the shadowy root canals” and hopes that they will toast him “just once in the local anaesthetic.” Equally absurd is “Chickens in San Francisco.” At the head of the poem is printed an excerpt from Sunset magazine of March, 1974, which states that if a person owns a dog and cat, he can only have two chickens. In reaction to this statement, the poet dreams of a heaven of chickens filled with popping oviducts, an eternal Easter, and a feather winter. After he decides to forgo the cat and the dog, the chickens become “Plymouth Rocks” on a deck where they meet Shirley Temple who “clucks a little, she is well into/what they call the skin of the part. . . .” To conclude, the poet affirms that it is no good having chickens unless he can have countless numbers.
Though other poems in this section are less humorous, they, too, are concerned with unusual subject matters. “To the Collector of Taxes, City and County of San Francisco” is a juxtaposition of an outward statement of denial about the current ownership of a dog with the inward question directed to the poet, who wonders “is the point of being a poet to . . ./use up things, make every loss valuable?” Another poem, “Powers of Five,” deals with the concept that involves the progression of technology and its effect upon man. The calculator is used as a concrete image and a metaphor for the multiplication of inventions and people, wealth, and power. Less socially significant, but more engaging, is a piece, “This Mouth Is,” about the busy orifice of the writer who feels it is his responsibility to keep the world from experiencing silence. Four other poems in this section recount specific, well-defined experiences of four unusual individuals and are as different in tone as they are in subject matter.
Perhaps the most effective poem in this group is the title piece, “In the Dreaming.” As a prelude, the poet quotes an excerpt from Alan Moorehead’s The Fatal Impact. The poem itself is divided into six sections, the first of which presents a May morning in Oxford where two lovers walk together amidst voices and, perhaps, the ghost of their unborn child. But this picture is only “in the dreaming.” In another reality, the poet lies alone in the “summer city,” and his mind moves in the third part to midnight in Magnosc. Then, he briefly recalls an encounter where “the seeds of death always between us/on the plastic table./I try to will myself not to pick them up.” Although the fifth section is a denial of forgiveness, he finds a comforting sense of rationale knowing that his past experiences “are still there,/loving you as they can,/ . . . all there, in the dreaming.”
In the second section of the book, the poems have a pungent, witty tone about them. They vary from the very serious topic of death to the surrealistic vision of an afternoon in San Francisco to the experience of visiting a gay bar. These poems are more exacting and of a higher quality than those of the first section; in them, the poet grasps the complexities of living, and, although his visions are still layered, sometimes even surrealistically, his images in “The Rainbow Grocery” are less vague.
The first four poems in the section are concerned with the poet as a man learning to cope with his self-image, the impressions of others, his sustenance, and a combination of...
(The entire section is 2073 words.)